A post-racial American reality? Really? Where!

When Pres. Barack Obama a black and bi-racial man was inaugurated in 2009 many Americans assumed (incredibly) that it signaled the end of bigotry and prejudice.

They assumed that America had finally ventured past race. They want to talk about it less. They call it post-racial. The idea and the hope to be past race is partly a hopeful social hype and partly a media creation, and is justly born of an exhale after a dream too-long-deferred finally came into being.

But toying with the idea and image of America having finally ventured beyond a race mindset frustrates me; those who do that aren’t dealing with reality!  Entertainment tends to reflect that reality more effectively.

Chris Rock does his provocative thing.

Chris Rock does his provocative thing.

To use a line from an edgy Chris Rock bit, who’s more sick of America’s racial mind: white people or black people? Black people (or those who are treated like it); we hate it too, but have to deal with the weight and spoils of race. While there are consequences for it, Anglos (white people) don’t!

When we’ve moved past race, then the brownness, blackness, or caramel color of a person’s skin won’t make us think twice about grinning at and greeting strangers. The worst recent example of strangers clashing is when Trayvon Martin met George Zimmerman. The murder of Trayvon Martin and the not guilty verdict for his attacker, George Zimmerman, is only the latest and most offensive, memorable and evocative reflection of our racial, not post-racial, reality. Most perceptive Americans understand that we have not moved past that troublesome subject, that bogeyman, which is race.

Talking about race less often doesn’t move us past it or let it hurt us any less than it used to.

During a July 2013 panel discussion at the Newseum, broadcast on C-Span-3, a professor of rhetoric, a brown man, spoke about the belief one of his students that her world was post-racial.  He told the audience that he wasn’t sure how to respond to that and her; he knew that she or her other classmates had noticed his color when they’d walked into class.

Yes. Will DuBois was prescient in describing the toxic color line and foresaw the crisis in 1903. Sadly, he wasn’t prescient enough. One hundred years later, in 2013, even with a black or bi-racial president and a soon-to-be majority minority, a zealous vigilante murdered a black man, was tried for, and finally acquitted of a crime for which plenty of evidence was against him.

We have not yet moved past “race.”

“Crime After Crime” is a moving documentary about a woman’s perseverence, and the sausage-making in “justice”

“Crime After Crime,” a feature-length documentary by Yoav Potash, about a troubled young woman, Deborah Peagler, who was convicted of homicide more than 25 years ago.  This, after having asked neighborhood gangsters to make her abusive lover stop beating and terrorizing her.  While a 2003 California law would only demand six years of her life in prison, her 1983 sentence took more than 25.  This is her story.

This suspenseful true story will show at the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul starting on July 29th.

Ms. Deborah Peagler awaits justice and freedom (courtesy Sundance)

Two lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, stepped up to take her case, pro bono, after a 2003 California law was passed that changed the game for victim/survivors of domestic abuse who are convicted of homicide, and free her.  In doing so they found a sympathetic client, and a District Attorney’s office, run by Steve Cooley, that has committed and is committing “Crime After Crime,” as Mr. Safran described their conduct, to save face and keep careers.

When you picture justice, this isn’t it: not “Crime After Crime.”  It’s a spectacular story, where the themes and stakes will remind some of you of the activist 1970s movie trend with such titles as 1980’s “Brubaker,” 1979’s “…And Justice for All,” and 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” of the underdog.

Winston Churchill, an extraordinary political icon of the United Kingdom, once said that “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms…”  As it goes with that, so this seems to with justice: she was denied parole at least thrice.  At one point Safran describes how the parole and appellate process work in ways, which ignore or preclude the convict’s promise for doing good.  Ms. Deagler had been an ideal inmate, had earned a two-year degree, become a mentor to junior inmates and served far more time than 2000s laws demanded.  So the case requires Herculean efforts even when the law, precedent and rhetorical are on their side.

Lawyers Josh Safran and Nadia Costa guide Ms. Peagler toward freedom, if not justice (courtesy Berkeley Side)

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office does so many things that clash with the public’s interests or Ms. Peagler’s.  It makes you wretch and doubt America’s commitment to justice, or equal justice.  Originally she was sentenced via a legal perspective that lumped women, who lash out is desperation at their abusive husbands or lovers, with those women who kill in cold blood.

The stakes, offenses and perversions of justice, and morals in this story make it a crackerjack whodunit.  What makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand is that “Crime After Crime” trains its crosshairs, more and more, on the prosecutors misconduct.  The DA’s office conceals a pivotal document, uses unreliable and impotent witness testimony and reneges on compassionate agreements.

California's masses support Peagler's cause (courtesy LATimes.com)

“Crime After Crime” boasts as many plot twists and is as fast-paced as a sweeps week episode of “Law & Order.”  In some ways this is similar to 1993’s “In the Name of the Father,” even though that drama, which was based on a true story, exonerates justice in the United Kingdom.  In both stories, convicts languish in prison for crimes, and with sentences, more heinous than the evidence warranted.

Ms, Peagler’s odyssey is even more trying and dramatic than another documentary, POV’s “Presumed Guilty,” from 2010.  That  indicts the Mexican version of justice – and a very non-Western.  That candid and uncomfortable exposé provides excellent and telling comparison to Ms. Peager’s story.

Alongside being a splendid true crime drama, this documentary pushes us to consider several uncomfortable questions: what is justice?  what color is it?  why must it not only have a price, but one that makes our noses bleed?  Finally, what do we expect from it vs. what America’s founders wanted us to expect from it.

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“Potiche” is a French retro farce of sexual & workplace politics, which might remind you of “Nine to Five”

“Potiche” a French farce of sexual politics, set in the 1970s is an amusing, campy and retro story.   This story of a trophy wife (the translation of potiche) who takes her CEO husband’s place at the umbrella factory, which he claimed from the marriage.

This feels like a flipside telling of the 1980 workplace comedy movie, “Nine-to-Five.”  The look, feel is out-dated, but that retro view helps to make this basically smart, but also shallow story amuse us.

“Potiche” takes place when the U.S. was amid its feminist and labor revolutions, which were also marked by “women’s work” sections of the newspaper want ads.

Landmark Theatres’  shows this at the Edina Cinema for a week from April 29th.

There is une petite leçon beyond the campy and ironical comedy.  It’s worth seeing.

Just asking, again: Why do we love to attack Islam, an ancient faith founded on peace?!

Sometimes a film critic finds himself so flummoxed by people who leap to judgment without considering facts that a comment feels necessary.

Rep. Peter King (R) NY, Chairman of Homeland Security Committee, opened hearings to examine “the radicalization of American Muslims.”  In other words connecting Islam with terrorism.  In the press he uses inflammatory talking points, which make scintillating headlines, but little sense to audiences who think critically and with open minds.

Rep. Keith Ellison testifies before the House Committee on Homeland Security

Why do we rely on rhetoric in lieu of facts when those facts don’t suit us or our hearts?  Consider Dan Patrick Moynihan’s thoughts on facts: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  Well, by that reasonable standard, how many talking heads would have to straighten out their acts?

If you watch him in his circuit on the talk shows, his disinterest in subtlety, nuance or incisive thought makes it clear that he’s an egomaniac.  Context doesn’t really interest him.  Headlines do; the big, bold ones.

Why are readers and viewers suckers for incendiary and sensational clips, those quotes that’re so often left out of context?  Remember Shirley Sherrod at the USDA? That department rushed to judgment because of incomplete and highly prejudicial information.  Its chief was compelled to send Ms. Sherrod packing.  As Chris Rock would probably say, context is our friend!  After her statement was put back into context the President himself had to reach out to diffuse that shameful situation.

Should we be concerned more by our impatient demand for instant, but incomplete information, by our disinterest in reading any off-line news, or by how American students’ reading comprehension may be under par these days?  But how much would either of these help us to remember that Muslims, as with most of us, are just nice folks who want to live and love in peace?

Walter Cronkite supposedly said something about an under-informed citizenry: I really tried to do as much as possible with a 22-minute newscast, but people really need to read…

Just asking: why is it so very easy, comforting or convenient to name an overwhelmingly good people – how many of you have met Muslims, found them gracious and quick with a smile – as a nemesis?

As contemptable as the attacks on the Twin Towers were, on a Biblical scale, 10 years later, that’s not enough of a reason to presume that a whole people is an automatic enemy.  Really.

Biography of Pakistan’s “Bhutto” is a political action movie that grabs you

“Bhutto” is a three-level history of Pakistan, its culture, its people, with Ms. Benazir Bhutto’s accomplishments front-and-center.  She was Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister, but didn’t rise from nothing.  Her dad, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself a former Pakistani Prime Minister, had to come first.

Benazir Bhutto, fmr Pakistani Prime Minister (courtesy First Run Features)

He set his progressive, maybe radical, example in the home and office, and a precedent for his daughter Benazir Bhutto.  This story isn’t just hers, or theirs, but also the state’s.

“Bhutto” is a potent, exceptional feature-length political documentary, from Duane Baughman & Johnny O’Hara, about a family that broke with customs to make history.  Truly, it’s a political action movie!  While it’s not Jason Bourne, the dramatic and consequences are just as tense.  Pakistan is a zealous Muslim state that’s both troubled and troublesome; in part because of fundamentalists, and the military and their diverging goals.  Women were only noticed if that suited the men, as long as there was no trouble, no waves made.  Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s story is vital to the state’s broader one.  Before her, women were never expected – or wanted – to serve the people by leading them.

Landmark Theatre’s Lagoon Cinema will begin showing “Bhutto” on Jan 28th.

This political documentary film provides a concise primer on Pakistan’s and the Bhutto family’s dense, complex and compelling interwoven stories, which are both personal and political – powerful.  Now, politics and family are often a dramatic mix; consider America’s Kennedy’s, the Windsor’s (the Royal Family) of Great Britain or the Daley’s of Chicago.  Adding contentious questions of gender or religion, or both to that mix is incendiary. The grooming of a groundbreaking stateswoman is a great story for ambitious girls.

We get all of this in one fascinating, highly intelligent, even urbane film.  Some people might find “Bhutto” too complex, too dense and too deep.  It mixes a few major moving parts.  While it’s a political documentary, the incendiary topics make it a political action movie.   Either one of these stories, about either of the Prime Ministers Bhutto, father or daughter, of about the state, could be full-length history entertainment.  Outside of PBS’ POV series it’s hard to come up with another film, documentary or not that deals with pioneering women politicians.  Particularly in lands where women only known as wives and mothers, serving families, never nation states.

Ms. Bhutto’s story, while dramatic, walks beside her dad’s.  She is her father’s daughter.  The dad, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s, story was vital to show his Prime Minister daughter’s origins, how she grow with fewer fears than other women.  He broke with tradition and custom, after Benazir wore a burqa for the first time.  After his wife told him that their daughter had worn that, he considered what the custom meant to him and he told her that Benazir didn’t have to wear it.  That helped to break the mold of a traditional Pakistani woman.

If we were to score this: 4.5 from 5.

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What do “10,000 Black Men Named George” have to do with Martin L King?

There’s a film about a pivotal labor activist, and with a peculiar title, that tells a sad story within its title, “10,000 Black Men Named George.” Thousands of “nameless” African American men worked as porters on the railroads.  The man was Asa Philip Randolph, although his first name is rarely spelled out.

This is Martin Luther King’s weekend.  His birthday is on Jan. 15th, while we await Monday to celebrate his profound legacy.  Next to the most publicized personalities ­of January and Black History Month – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes and William E. B. Du Bois –  Mr. Randolph might be the least known.

It’s remarkable that the most palatable icon, Martin L. King, has not yet had a biopic made about him.  In 1992 Spike Lee gave us “Malcolm X.” Ten years later, Julie Dash gave us “The Rosa Parks Story” with Angela Bassett for cable.  And then, also in 2002, Robert Townsend, brought Showtime TV and us A. Philip Randolph (portrayed by André Braugher) and the porters’ story of toiling to improve Sleeping Car Porters’ work lives.  “10,000 Black Men” potently sheds light on a little known portion of American labor relations, at the crossroad of African-American history.

The film’s first scene shows how their work might go, illustrating a common sort of clash with a client: when a porter sees a woman steal and stow Pullman towels into her luggage, he diplomatically reminds her not to do that.  He tells her that the porters are charged for items, that end up missing.  “Stunned,” she insists on telling his boss, the conductor, of this daring, uppity offense.  When the conductor arrives, the porter stands there and take the situation.

While Rev. King deserves our reverence, he’s one of a small cadre of comet-bright icons – out of the 100s and 1,000s who deserve as much recognition. It’s an irony that so many activists in that list, above, had no films made in their names, save for Justice Marshall with CBS’ “Separate But Equal” in 1991.  One worthy question is “why so few the movies have been made about even that set of almost 10?”

Pullman Porter Helping Woman (courtesy Creative Commons)

“10,000 Black Men” is a delight to watch, sneaking history lessons into a great story.  The under-recognized André Braugher’s portrayal of Randolph is key.  Late in the film there are pivotal scenes that highlight loyalty and betrayal.  One climactic scene has a kindly elder porter, zealous about the movement, found out as a Judas, a double-agent.  And then we see the hardship that Mrs. Randolph, an entrepreneur, endures when protests against on her husband force her to shutter her salon.

According to an excerpt of “Marching Together,” from google books, “the porter [union] election results forced the Pullman Company to recognize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as the porters’ and maids’ legitimate representative.  More than two years passed before contract negotiations were completed,” 12 years to the day after they began their struggle.

In the 1920s and 1930s the porters were paid such meager respect that the patrons and Pullman Company didn’t care what the porters’ mothers had named them.  It was easier to call “them” George, after George Pullman, the company’s founder.  According to Rising from the Rails, a website that honors the porters, “They were hired…because they epitomized Pullman’s vision of safe, reliable, and invisible servants.”

Taking a way-back look at a movie reminds us of films that could be memorable and give us something, if we take the time for them.  While some movies are “always” on cable TV, these aren’t.

Haley Barbour and his ilk: why is the Southern Conservative boot drawn to its own mouth?

Just stepping away from cinema for the moment to consider politics, Southern politics.  Its persona and its rhetoric.  Mostly, what do they mean and bode for the masses?  Just asking.

Why do certain Southern Conservative politicians suffer from their typically Republican tribe’s brand of occasional, persistent foot-in-mouth syndrome?  During the last few days, the “Wall Street Journal” and surely other news sources of-record have shown Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s blind, well-intended opinion about how bad the civil rights ear wasn’t in his memory and experience.  Opinion writers from the “Washington Post” to its web partner “The Root,” have pounced into the fray, eager to refresh or reboot Mr. Barbour’s memory.

Why are some Southern Conservatives so prone to these gaffes?  Fmr. Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott’s was a proud, potent figure until he sounded off about how Strom Thurmond’s failure as a Dixiecrat “doomed” the U.S. to its current lot.  Rand Paul too reminded many Americans of the heart of the GOP’s credo and its shrillest voices, when he spoke of the Civil Rights Act’s myriad vices.  They were neither the first, nor the last to mistake their creed for that of the masses, either of their states or those United.

Somehow many Americans keep waiting to exhale, waiting for an era when this won’t be common, but might seem comical.

Usually the turbulent portions of the South’s heritage, which clash with a Norman Rockwell nostalgia, are omitted from political talking points in order to fit a storybook sort of provincial memory of barbaric tumult.  That fits here.

Mr. Barbour, as with anyone, must decide his positions on vital topics, events and talking points and stick with them.  Martin King, Jr once opined, “if you’ve never angered someone in your life, then you’ve never stood for anything.”  If bigotry is a pillar of your credo, then that’s who you are.  If you don’t want to be known for having that heart, then you face an internal gauntlet.

The late Sen. Daniel Moynihan said, “We are each entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.”  It would’ve been splendid had Gov. Barbour not trod that sometimes still swolen cultural and factual boundary.  Facts becomes casualties when you’re convinced that your memory does double-duty as confirmed fact.  It’s foolish to judge memories, except now when they’re mistaken in this incendiary way.

I hesitate to compare Mr. Barbour’s posture to hate speech, because it wasn’t, but he treads a slick slope.  It reminds me of when CBS News’ “60-minutes” ran a segment some years ago with representatives of the new Klan; the group yearned and strove to present a modern, palatable face for their organization, but Steve Kroft saw the sickening, shameful paraphernalia (Think stereotypical cartoons from the 1920s and 30s.) that the Klansman was hiding.

Many Yankees see meager differences between the White Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan: they each extolled and exploited different tools of terror to keep their majority.  For the Councils it was economic, a subtle even prescient approach.  For the Klan it was brawn and bullets.

Why do the masses allow it?  …Choosing to believe that, while ignorant, or without clear or confirmed malice, the Conservative South’s loudmouths’ fangs hold no venom?  This is a perplexing and persistent question.

If the reality wasn’t a still simmering crisis, we might poise ourselves to laugh.  Maybe we should have a new comic duo: Barbour & Steele.

Remembering a Black peace maker, Ralph Bunche, at the movies

Dec 10, 2010 marks 60 years since Ralph J. Bunche, Ph.D. became the first person of color to earn the Nobel Prize for Peace.  He a mid-20th-Century icon, whom many – far too many – people have forgotten.  He earned the Nobel Prize for his work in 1950 as the UN mediator who brought about the armistice between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, all Arab neighbor countries.  In Bunche’s era, as much of an institutional insider as he was the “ultimate model Negro,” he was also seen as an “international Uncle Tom.  An enigma.”  Except for the last item, Mr. Bunche was Sidney Poitier’s diplomatic contemporary.

If you wonder about Black diplomat characters in movies, Secretaries of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, from Oliver Stone’s 2008 film “W,” might pop to mind.  But Ralph Bunche probably won’t.  Most Americans probably presume that the other two were the first renowned peace-makers of color.

Ralph J. Bunche, Ph.D.

Mr. Bunche has been described in many more ways: Mr. UN.  Diplomat.  Scholar.  Professional optimist.  Nobel Laureate. Enigma.  African-American.  Peacemaker.  That final duo is the most remarkable here:  He was the UN’s first black undersecretary-general, and the first black person to earn a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard.

The dearth of educated, cool-headed, urbane characters of color is a part of a chronic stereotypes that plagues North America’s culture, psyche and attitude: the black thug, or black buck.  He is malevolent, barely educated and a committed criminal, often epitomized by at least one character in myriad “keepin’ it real” type homeboy movies, which had a zenith in the 1990s.  The black diplomat’s image smashes that stereotype nicely, showing a non-violent, goal-oriented alternative to quashing conflicts.  We just rarely consider these characters or their stories.

There are well-known films about Anglo diplomats, even though we rarely see those stories that way:

  • Fernando Meirelles’ 2005 film “The Constant Gardener,” adapted from John LeCarré’s novel, about a mid-level Foreign Service officer who investigates and scrutinizes his wife’s suspicious death across real and political borders.
  • Robert Harmon’s 2004 made-for-HBO film “IKE: Countdown to D-Day” recounts Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s diplomatic feat in orchestrating the joint force Invasion of Normandy, Operation Overlord.
  • Stephen Frears’ 2006 joint European production “The Queen,” portrays the delicate diplomacy between both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair as they dealt with Princess Diana’s death in 1997.  It’s a compelling window into the taciturn world of the Royals.

But when you want to consider brown, black and beige diplomats in movies, there are slim pickin’s.  Still there are some…engrossing, even atypical choices.

The $64-million question, “why are peacemakers of color, formal or not, rarely movie characters?” is best posed and considered away from here, amongst friends, over a meal.  These portrayals don’t simply matter – they’re vital, so that those youngsters of color, who are curious and engaged by questions that cost them their cool points, or their street cred, can see worlds beyond their neighborhoods.

Let’s consider the few, which you can embrace:

Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” recounts Mohandas K. Gandhi’s extraordinarily and exceptionally patient toil toward India’s independence from Britain’s tyranny.  Never

mind, that an Anglo actor, Ben Kingsley portrayed Mr. Gandhi… (shaking head – with vigor)  He became more than a diplomat, transcending that over more than two generation’s time, to personify a cause.

Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X” recounts Malcolm Little’s equally exceptional transformation: he grew from a Zoot suited hipster, through a period of self-education and ill-informed zeal for Elijah Mohammed’s version Islam, to someone, who after an epiphany in Mecca on a Hajj, commits to conventional Islam.  After this, he acted as a peace maker.  The film nearly omits this final phase.

Pete Travis’ 2009 British-made film “Endgame” tells a nail-biting story about the African National Congress’ [ANC] Minister of Information, Thabo Mbeki’s, negotiations for Nelson Mandela’s release and toward majority rule in South Africa.

Coming to terms with a South African black majority

As we consider commercial movies, we must visit a difference sort, the documentary, if we want to watch a film about this anniversary man: William Greeves’ 2001 documentary about him for PBS, “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey,” makes the “Uncle Tom” and enigma questions clear, but also shows why Mr. Bunche deserves to be revered.

“Gandhi” begins with a surprise, Gandhi’s assassination.  This convention biopic about this simple man who became much more than simply a man is difficult to compare to the others.  The film’s style is very different from, maybe older than, the others.   The scenes in “Gandhi” seem to cycle through sequences: he speaks, he then observes the masses’ response and he leads another protest and the government responds.  This with increasing tension and peril.

Few people probably consider Malcolm X a diplomat or peace-maker, either in Lee’s epic film, or because of pop culture.  With the movie it’s easier to explain: it had to move at a break-neck pace.  Investing a mere three hours on a person, who’s formidable and potent legacy was four decades in the making, entails agonizing cuts in order to make a film that people will go to.  The film has a “History vs Hollywood” moment, as in the History Channel’s program, because Mr. Lee omits the diplomatic outreach that Mr. X did in the wake of his pilgrimage, and while he was in the Middle East and North Africa.

His fiery, volatile rhetoric fell on conservative Anglos’ ears like merciless blows, while he was never connected with violence (Ossie Davis referred to this in his eulogy), his passion, wit and candor made him seem like he was.

The most potent peace making comes at the mid-point.  And it boasts shock and awe: after a member of the Nation of Islam is injured while in police custody, Malcolm leads a march from that police station to a Harlem hospital, where he patiently deals with the police.  An NYPD captain [Peter Boyle] confronts him about a mass – what the captain calls a mob – of black Muslims and an angry, raucous bunch behind them.  Theirs is a professional, but brusque confrontation.  After Malcolm dismisses his men, the captain declares, “that’s too much power for one man to have!”  Ironic.

While the last 45-mins of “Malcolm X” takes place during and after the Hajj, all the peace making that Lee’s break-neck pace gives us was a news conference.  He candidly answers questions about bringing charges against the United States to the United Nations.

Thabo Mbeki sits among the minority, asking that his people not be treated as one

The negotiations in “Endgame” between Mr. Mbeki [Chiwetel Ejiofor] and Prof. Willie Esterhuyse [William Hurt] were scenes of suspense without pyrotechnics, other than rhetoric.  But that rhetoric held two people’s rights, freedoms and sources of pride at stake, or maybe for political ransom.  In reality, while the film emphasized Mbeki and Esterhuyse’s coming-together, it also suggests that two other supporting personalities were at least as potent as they were: Willem de Klerk, Pres. de Klerk’s brother, and Michael Young.

In a YouTube video Mr. Ejiofor describes, a minute into it, how the director, Mr. Meirelles, chose to exploit the political thriller genre in order to grab viewers to what might otherwise be a piece about talking heads.  This is a quiet and cerebral experience that demands viewers’ patience.

Even though there are three titles and three exceptional films that show brown and beige men as peace makers, the most recent one, and closest to feature-length, is also tells the most direct engrossing story of peace making work.  “Endgame” is that.  Far fewer people will sit down for a three-hour film experience.  Patience is a quickly evaporating trait.  But a political thriller that lets viewers peer through an oft-guarded window can win viewers.

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Was “Philadelphia” the last, best film on HIV/AIDS?

December 1st is World AIDS Awareness Day and, incidentally on the day after the Department of Defense released the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” report.  Let’s consider HIV/AIDS on film, and how those movies help to calm people, and how they help rid us of futile, troublesome myths and misinformation.

AIDS is rarely an amusing topic of conversation: unless you know or love someone who has suffered or survived it, you rarely know many details – accurate ones anyway.  One of the first national TV news stories about the disease was on NBC in 1983.   Many people pick up their information from mass entertainment – TV and the movies, no matter the platform.  Several movies, from both Hollywood and independent realms, touch on the disease.  Some of those concentrate on it, and are good.  A few: great, indelible.

Awaiting an era of hope in their world...

There is “Longtime Companion,” from 1989, which portrays the beginning of the “gay cancer,” or “gay plague,” and the many discoveries and terrors that the New York’s homosexual and its broader communities would have to confront; “And the Band Played On,” from 1991 and made for HBO, which portrays broader battles – the medical and political – which politicians and activists waged in pursuit of a cure and compassion; and “Philadelphia,” from 1993, which addressed the battles over those rights, which the afflicted.

If you ask Jerry L. Hughes, the founder of the Twin Cities-based Hughes Foundation, for his opinion, he’ll say, “The only film that comes to mind,” which accurately reflects the disease and part of the life, “is ‘Philadelphia.'”  And, released in 1993 – just in time for Christmas (a ballsy choice), that’s outdated. Hughes’ foundation’s mission: “working to build a lifeline to individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS in the India, Namibia Panama and United States.”  Continuing about the movie: “It emphasized a spirit of fear more than one of hope.  What we need more of is a spirit of hope.  That you can live a long, healthy life if you are detected early.”

  • The U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic began in 1981 and continues to disproportionately affect minorities, men who have sex with men of all races, women and youth.
  • More than 1 million people in the U.S. currently are living with HIV/AIDS.
  • 21 percent of those infected with HIV are unaware of their infection.
  • more details…

With so much blindness of all sorts about the truths of the disease, and those who can and do live healthy lives, it’s morose that few movies tell a story that balances the disease’s trials and toils, while extolling on hope and health.  In Hughes’ opinion, “There’s nothing out there that really paints a positive story.”  Instead,  “Make a good, glamorous, hip movie.”  One that shows everyday folks, whom you wouldn’t guess have HIV/AIDS, and for whom, aside from their pill cocktails, it might often be incidental.

Some scenes from the the best known films leave us comfortable and better informed:  In “Philadelphia,” Andrew Beckett [Tom Hanks] freaks Joe Miller [Denzel Washington] out…by merely shaking his hand.  Miller doesn’t know how to respond to his first contact with a man with AIDS/HIV.  As well-educated as he is (and as many of our friends are eager to believe they are) he bee-lines himself to his family doctor…just to be sure, and comfortable, to gather his breath and feelings.

And later, during his defense of Andrew, he confronts the taboo, the stigma and dogmas by assaulting his own witness with a litany of gay epithets in order to…  That’s the judge’s question.  Mr. Miller’s candid, pragmatic response is indelible:

In “And the Band Played On,” Dr. Don Francis [Matthew Modine] – who, while a vital name in the fight for a cure, is anonymous in pop culture – confront’s a political panel fraught with complex political, medical, legal and religious agendas which contradict one another.  Dr. Francis’ overriding concern: The Golden Rule.  He steals the scene at 3:27.

How many dead hemophiliacs do you need!?  How many people have to die for it to be cost-efficient for you people to do something about it…?!  Give us a number, so we won’t annoy you again..!!

While this highly dramatic scene grabs us, and Mr. Hughes agrees, it also bugs him.  “So many of the films focus on the bad: focus on the suffering, focus on the symptoms.  And the reality is that, if they’re treated early, get HIV and AIDS therapy, early on, you can live a long, normal, and healthy life. …It’s not a death sentence anymore,” he said.   Don’t forget the trial and toil, but also the regular life that they lead when caught early.

One obstacle in illustrating progress: few films with central HIV positive characters are in the mass entertainment.  It’s hard to identify a theatrical film from the 2000s.  There’ve been no new AIDS/HIV-oriented films since “Philadelphia,” at least none that were as well-publicized as it.

Hughes is hungry for a reality TV program that melds the format of MTV’s “Real World” and NBC’s “The Apprentice,” where “twelve people, from different religious groups, different races, half of whom are HIV positive,” the other half are not; neither they, nor the audience know who is and who isn’t.   The program’s will show a day in the life, with a weekly celebrity challenge.  That’s the “been-there, done that” side of the program.  “Through the relationships in the house,” Hughes said, “I’d like to see someone who’s Muslim get into a fight with blonde-haired, blue-eyes white girl from the Midwest who does have HIV.  Talk about how HIV is in India…  He also wants to see “someone who’s HIV-positive falls in love with someone who’s not.  You show the world the fears the world the fear that comes about – those of the disease, and of romantic rejection.

AIDS/HIV is rarely an easy, free conversation starter.  Maybe that’s why we await good movies about it.   …And what a wait..!  Is that insipid realm, reality TV, the best option out there to see calm, accurate images of an HIV-positive life?  Movies sure aren’t a be-all, end-all.

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Danish-Korean “The Red Chapel” – a biased, awkwardly amusing “documentary”

A Danish media producer, Mads Brügger, draws two fellow Danes, and Korean adoptees, to perform bad, amateur comedy as an effort at cultural exchange with North Korea.  His Korean-born comrades are Jacob Nossell, a self-described spastic, and Simon Yul Jørgensen. The “documentary” is called “The Red Chapel” (“Det røde kapel” in Danish).  The exchange is merely a ruse for Mr. Brügger: he wants the opportunity to film inside this sealed state, to record and expose the state’s brutal, repressive system.

The Danish-Korean adoptee "comics": Simon and Jacob

Minnesota Film Arts brought this film into their Pan Asian film festival.  You figure: “hey, this could be wild.  Different.  Never seen this before.”

In the beginning, after having shown just how meager Jason and Simon’s skills are and how amateur their intentions, Mads asks the viewer via voice over: why would North Korea allow a comedy show that’s this bad to go forward unless they intended to exploit it for propaganda?  Good question.  That’s an interesting premise for a documentary.

How many reality-based, comedic documentaries are out there, or how many political documentaries have been made for laughs?  Hmm.  This documentary, a guerilla version, is strange.  The humor is semi-amusing, more silly than funny.  Simon and Jacob are sympathetic and very smart when Mr. Brügger leaves them enough on-screen long enough for this to register.

It’s too bad that Brügger named no non-partisan sources – no sources at all – for his often haunting assertions.  His opinions or conclusions are his currency here.  He uses no international public documents are cited to corroborate his words.  This bodes poorly if this is to be taken as a real documentary, instead of documentary style, or just called verité.

There are documentaries and documentary-style (verité) films.  The New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O. Scott, recently wrote about how the description or definition has become murkier and murkier. A “documentary?”:  documentaries are essentially long-form journalism.  To document.  To record and then report.

According to Merriam-Webster:

  • “to provide with factual or substantial support for statements made or a hypothesis proposed;
  • especially : to equip with exact references to authoritative supporting information.”

Among Scott’s observations, he recommends that people who watch docs ask themselves what agenda the film or its maker has.  In a perfect world, journalism‘s lone agenda is to build a story on a foundation of accurate, reliable and corroborated facts.  People can insist that reality TV is documentary, but that hot air coughs up into frost when you consider that those scenarios are contrived and conjured.

The verdict: if you accidentally bump into the DVD, why not take a gander?  Otherwise…

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